Sunday, July 6, 2003

Today I Vote for My Joey

As stagebound and talky as a sitcom and starring a feisty group of card-carrying AARP members, Today I Vote for My Joey plays like a Yiddish version of The Golden Girls, but producer-writer-director Aviva Kempner has more on her mind than geriatric sex jokes. The subject of this 20-minute short is the Florida voting fiasco of the last presidential election, and Kempner wastes no time on subtleties in driving home her point. As one character puts it: “They stole the election from us!”

The movie is playing this week at the New Jersey International Film Festival, where it was named this year’s Best Short Narrative Film/Video. It opens on the day of the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach, where a group of elderly Jewish friends and the Haitian home health nurse who tends to one of them are all raring to cast their votes for Al Gore and that nice Jewish boy, “Joey” Lieberman.

The old friends kvell at the prospect of voting for the first Jewish vice presidential candidate ever while the nurse talks about how proud she’ll be to participate in a free election after the political repression she experienced in Haiti. But when it comes time to vote, the nurse is shocked to hear that her relatives have been turned away from the polls and the Jews are horrified to learn that, confused by their butterfly ballots, they voted for “that anti-Semite [Pat] Buchanan.”

There are no gray areas in this brightly lit film, which makes no effort to appeal to those who don’t share its politics. “It’s a real Democratic revenge film,” Kempner said in a phone interview from her Washington, D.C. home. “There’s no doubt about that.” Paired at the festival with Unprecedented, a documentary about the 2000 election that its website describes as “a disturbing picture of an election marred by suspicious irregularities, electoral injustices, and sinister voter purges in a state governed by the winning candidate's brother,” Kempner’s short is a celluloid call to action for people who think the wrong man won. When the two films played together recently in DC, she says, “People were laughing during my movie, and during Unprecedented there was a lot of booing. I think the two films together are a real catharsis for people.”

Though new to fiction films, Kempner is an old hand at documentaries. Her first movie, which she produced and co-wrote, was Partisans of Vilna, an account of the Jewish resistance against the Nazis. Promises to Keep, a documentary on the homeless whose narration she wrote, was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film about the Jewish baseball star of the 1930s and ’40s that she wrote, produced and directed, was nominated for an Emmy.

Kempner’s movies reflect her passions, which tend to center around what she calls “Jewish heroes.” The daughter of a Jewish-American soldier and a Polish Jew who survived a German labor camp by passing for Catholic, she was born in Berlin shortly after World War II. She grew up in Detroit, under the shadow of her parents’ memories of the Holocaust that killed three of her grandparents and one of her aunts. (Full disclosure: Her stepfather and my dad were good friends, so I have vivid childhood memories of her family -- and of seeing her as a comically full-throated, fur-coated mother in her high school's production of Bye Bye Birdie.)

After getting a masters degree in urban planning and a law degree, Kempner practiced law for a while, but she was soon drawn to moviemaking, inspired by seeing Roots and Holocaust on TV and by obsessive re-readings of Leon Uris' Mila 18, a book about the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Being a child of survivors, I have this feeling that I have a responsibility for telling these under-known stories,” she says. “That Jews did resist the Nazis, or what an amazing player Hank Greenberg was, or how devastating it was for these Jews to inadvertently vote for Pat Buchanan.” Even her production company bears witness, named for the maternal grandparents who died in Auschwitz.

Kempner made Joey under the auspices of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. She decided to focus on the 2000 election because it was “the thing that I felt the most upset about,” she says. “What was so awful was that the butterfly ballot was an innocent mistake, but why not have one consistent system for voting? I think we need voting reform in this country.”

“This is a good time to be thinking about that,” she adds, “since the politicians are already campaigning for the next election.”

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